The Christmas Story Began with a Forerunner

2 baby tortoises walking in a line, one after the other

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Why Did We Hear from John the Baptist Before We Heard from Jesus?

As I enjoyed Thanksgiving, I looked forward to Christmas and I couldn’t stop wondering: Why did the man we call John the Baptist need to tell the Jews that Jesus was coming? I’d never thought about it before. Why is he part of biblical history? And why did God lay out such an integrated and impossible duo of supernatural pregnancies for Baby John and Baby Jesus? The Christmas story began with the pregnancy of John, who was selected by God to be a forerunner to Jesus. He was precursor both in birth and in ministry. So the Christmas story is not complete without the birth of John the Baptist.

So why did the Jews need a forerunner?

Wouldn’t they still have their Messiah, and wouldn’t we still have the gospel, without John the Baptist?

Let’s consider their situation…

The Jews expected a Messiah as promised from God. They expected a King who would rescue them from their misery and oppression; a Redeemer who would gather their people after having been scattered and assimilated into other nations; a Prince of Peace to restore them as a nation and deliver them into their own land. They wanted and expected relief, and they looked for this Messiah who would be distinctively different than any other. This was their hope.

But their hope didn’t seem to be their reality, and they mostly found themselves in dark and troubled times. Sometime after settling into the Promised Land, they hadn’t heard much from God, and even that limited involvement was waning. They memorized the Scriptures and retold the victories, but they didn’t connect with God as much as they had before. They lost battles and wars, lost lands, lost their freedom, and lost their identity. Many of them weren’t even sure God cared about them anymore. Many of them lost hope.

They lost hope and they looked for satisfaction from other gods – from false gods. They put the Law of Moses aside. Leaders, like kings and priests, led them into empty worship and impure sacrifices, and they adopted the godless, and sometimes inhumane, rituals of other nations. (See 1 Kings 22:51-53 for one of many examples.) They didn’t seek God. They turned away from Him.

Of course, there were exceptions. Rare exceptions. There was the occasional prophet, whom kings called on, it seems, to get on God’s good side before heading to battle. And there were other prophets who countered the kings with this basic message:

  • Israel traded God for other false gods.
  • Turning away from God incited His wrath.
  • Israel’s sin comes with consequences.

The nation of Israel, as a whole, turned away from God. Even the priests dishonored God with their cheap replacements for what were supposed to be unblemished sacrifices. Some things got better. Many returned to their land and they rebuilt God’s temple. But they still hadn’t returned fully to God. In fact, they defied Him with arrogance, as if there would be no penalty for their sins.  Read Malachi 2:17:

You have wearied the Lord with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord,
and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament, both in print and chronologically. It serves as a good summary of Israel’s rebellion. It’s also the last we hear about Israel in the biblical record for some 400 years until the first writings of the New Testament. During those few centuries, some interesting things occurred in Israel’s story, but it didn’t really change their bottom line. The Jews still endured the pains of life without the Messiah. It was a life without hope.

But thousands of years are like days to God, so He wasn’t silent very long. He started recording Scripture again with the Christmas story, which is exactly what Malachi wrote about. Malachi prophesied that John the Baptist would come as the messenger who would “prepare the way” for Jesus, their Messiah (Malachi 3:1). This is the Christmas story! God’s plan from the beginning of time was about to happen.

So, the Christmas story on earth begins with John the Baptist. His was the first of two supernatural pregnancies (see Luke 1). As we know, the second pregnancy is at the heart of the Christmas story. The virgin Mary carried Jesus, the “Sun of Righteousness” of whom Malachi proclaimed (Malachi 4:2), the Savior who would come for all the world as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), and the Messiah whom John the Baptist referred to as “He that should come” (Luke 7:19).

So why then was John first on scene in the Christmas story?

Why did God send John to prepare the way before Jesus began His earthly ministry?

As I see it, Israel needed a reminder. They needed to remember that they are favored by God. They are His special people. They have a Messiah, one who is anointed by God, who will deliver them from hundreds, if not thousands, of years of feeling forgotten. He would gather them from far-away lands and make them a great nation again.

They also needed someone to tell them, like Elijah did centuries prior, to conduct themselves in a manner becoming of the nation God adores. He came to tell them to change their ways, to turn from their arrogance, and to turn back to God and live devoted to Him (1 Kings 18:18, Luke 3:1-20).

They would soon be in the company of a great king – a king of a forever kingdom – the Son of the Most High God (1 Chronicles 17:11-14). He would redeem them and fulfill the covenant God made with their forefather Abraham…with His blood (Luke 1:76-79). And they would no longer need a physical altar to atone for the ways they fall short of the Law of Moses.

The same is true for non-Jews, for God has offered His salvation to all the world.

From His favored people Israel, came the Savior of the world,

whom we celebrate at Christmas time.

So, the Jews needed John the Baptist…

     They needed to remember God’s promise of deliverance and great love for them. And they needed a wake-up call to turn away from their sinful ways and return to God with pure and humble worship and devotion, as an offering of “soothing aroma” to God (Genesis 8:20-21).

Today, some 2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth, all those who trust in the sacrifice of God’s Son enjoy the Redeemer as members of God’s family, grafted into His favored nation of Israel (Romans 1:11-31, Galatians 6:15-16). But we walk directly into the merciful, gracious, loving arms of our Savior, covered by His blood, so that we are presented as perfect to God. We come to God, our Father, as holy and righteous. No fear of banishment. No fear of punishment (John 1:11-18).

How should we respond to our Savior during this Christmas season? The Son of the Most High God put His prominence and reputation aside so that He could offer His perfect self as payment for the penalty that our sin requires (Philippians 2:5-11, Galatians 4:1-7, Hebrews 5:5-9). John knew this and he worked tirelessly to prepare the hearts of the Jews to be ready for their Messiah when He comes. He may have also known he was preparing our hearts – that somehow his message back then would reach our hearts today.

During this season of giving, we can continue the work of John the Baptist, the precursor to the Christmas story. We can sacrifice for Jesus who sacrificed Himself. We can become forerunners of our Savior for the sake of those who need to prepare themselves for His next coming. Remember the reason Jesus came to earth: to give Himself as a ransom for those He loves, so He can spend eternity communing with them (1 Timothy 2:3-7, Romans 5:12-20).

Here are a few suggestions to help us extend the work of John the Baptist:

1.    Be a catalyst for people to return to God.

There are people in our circles who no longer trust and follow the Savior. There are also some who were once seeking Him, seeking answers or spiritual fulfillment, longing for a relationship with the king of a forever kingdom. What can we do to point them back to Christ? Think about specific people for a moment…

2.    Be a voice so people can hear about salvation.

Many have not heard the truth of the Christmas story. Maybe we’re in their lives to explain it to them, or to connect them to others who will explain it. Maybe God wants us to drop some seeds into their hearts either directly or through Christmas celebrations or events. What is the Holy Spirit nudging us to do for them?

3.    Be a consistent representation of Christ to those who are skeptical.

We also rub shoulders with people who would have nothing to do with Jesus. Some may oppose our faith, while others would just rather spend their time doing things that have nothing to do with Jesus. For them, our day-in, day-out consistency can speak volumes to their hearts. Volumes, because each encounter builds on each encounter, and each correction we make as we seek to live with integrity confirms a real faith without hypocrisy. We are being watched. Are we consistently devoted to Christ in our everyday lives?

4.    Be a friend and fellow to brothers and sisters who devote themselves to God’s work.

Let’s be real.  It’s hard to get along with and work alongside some of our fellow Christians. Sometimes people rub us the wrong way. Sometimes we look down on them for having a superficial level of commitment. Sometimes they are overtly hypocritical. But if they are sincerely doing God’s work, how can we withhold a helping hand? Support and promote their work, and speak well of them, not slander. This is authentic love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and obedience to our Heavenly Father. Maybe it’s time to refocus our hearts to His work.

Can we do these four things this Christmas season and continue it into the New Year? If John the Baptist was alive today, I think he would lead us in all four. It’s what Jesus cares about most – at Christmas time and always.

Find all of my Christmas posts here.

If you have questions about John the Baptist and his message to the Jews and what it also means for non-Jews, or if you want to know more about Jesus and the Christmas story, please email me at

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